A factory rots away, awaiting State decision

The dusty calendars on the walls point to the same time period – December 2008. A long line of sewing machine stands, with the machines themselves missing, adorning the centre of the room. On the floor are wage books, bills, bits of cloths and a computer monitor.

These are a sampling of the sights that greet you if you manage to wade through the thick forestry that now surrounds the Commonwealth Trust (Comtrust) Textile factory building, which closed down in 2008.

The building now stands as an edifice which symbolises a past when everything went perfect like clockwork. Still listed as one of the ‘must see’ places in Malabar on the Kerala Tourism Department’s website, its impressive facade hides the sights of an entire factory rotting away.

Since its closing down, many of the machinery have been stolen. There are visible signs of break-ins in the smashed locks and bent window bars.

“Many of the items were stolen within a year of the closing down. The management never filed any complaint. There were rumours of some people from the management also being involved in the theft,” says an employee.

The Comtrust factory was started 175 years ago by the Basel missionaries. Till a few years back, the factory had been exporting high-quality clothing material, the British Queen being one of its esteemed customers. The workers allege that the closing down of the factory was an orchestrated move by the management.

“The former District Collector P.B. Salim had obtained an order from the London-based Parry Murray but the management refused to accept that just like it did with many other orders,” says P. Sivaprakash, joint convener of the Action Committee

In a State where the employees’ unions are blamed for the closing down of industries, the Comtrust factory tells the story of wilful neglect by the management even as the employees strived hard to keep it running. Since the closing down, 108 of the 300 workers have been on a strike demanding the reopening of the factory.

In July 2012, the Legislative Assembly passed a Bill for the government to take over the factory.

However, the President is yet to give assent to the bill. According to the employees, many of the Bills passed during the same time period have been given assent.

Some of the workers have taken up jobs at construction sites and in hotels to eke out a living. A few though continue to regularly assemble in front of the factory.

“I used to work in the dyeing department as a daily wager. Now I take up the odd painting job to support my family of four,” says J. Prashob, whose father was also a Comtrust worker.

Meanwhile, the land occupied by the factory has shrunk to 73 cents, with 1.23 acres being bought by a private party and another few cents by a major political party. A large part of the factory’s work area now stands in the 1.23 acres.

“The private party got an order from the high court for ‘pokku varavu’ of the 1.23 acres. We moved a review petition. But the buyer filed for contempt of court. So the village office had to concede. But the rights of the buyer on the land are still not established and it can be questioned during government takeover of the factory,” says District Collector K.V. Mohan Kumar.

He says that the management has assured that rumours of selling of the rest of the land are baseless. However, they are moving the Supreme Court against the government takeover of the factory.

The workers say that the government takeover, even if it happens, can give only a temporary relief. The factory is badly in need of a revamp, infrastructure-wise and in the marketing of its high quality products.

“The clients that we had were all long-time ones who have been buying from us since the British era. There has been virtually no marketing of the products to attract new clients. Even with the limited machinery, we have been producing high-quality products,” says Mr. Sivaprakash.

One of the suggestions of the workers is to hand over the running of the factory to the National Textile Corporation, a move which according to them can bring about professionalism into the managing of the factory.

They say that the protests will continue until the factory is up and running.

“We should start online protests also, it seems, to go with the current trend,” says Sivaprakash.